The Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC) is currently engaged in a violent jihadist insurgency against the Algerian government with the goal of replacing the secular regime with an Islamic state. The GSPC splintered from a rival Algerian organization, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in 1998 over a disagreement on whether civilians constitute legitimate targets. Since its inception in 1992, the GIA has killed thousands of Algerian civilians, including women and children, in targeted massacres. Consequently, the GIA came to be viewed as contaminated and as a result, Hassan Hattab, a former GIA leader and founder of the GSPC, was able to take many GIA defectors with him when he left. The GSPC was also able to attract new members through its stated focus on attacking exclusively government targets and security forces. The group got an additional boost after Algerian President Bouteflika instituted a widespread amnesty program for Islamic militants in 1998, and the GSPC was one of the few groups that declined to participate.
Al-Qaeda – which maintained a loose relationship with the GIA through individual combatants that had fought in Afghanistan – also separated itself from the GIA over the civilian massacres, and allegedly encouraged Hattab to defect, providing him with funding to establish the GSPC. Since 1998, the GSPC has grown in strength and visibility to become the most effective terrorist group in Algeria, consequently co-opting most of the GIA’s well-established overseas networks.
Early in its campaign, the GSPC successfully attacked Algerian security forces and other government targets. However, the group eventually returned to killing civilians – probably when it began suffering more significant losses – but not on the same scale as the GIA. Since 2002, the group has had some major setbacks, primarily due to infighting, the loss of two emirs and the steadily improving skills of the Algerian police and security forces.
Algerian intelligence and security services have become more skilled in recent years, not only at locating and eliminating terrorists and their hideouts, but also at exploiting the fissures in the GSPC and the GIA through propaganda and nationwide programs like the amnesty initiative. Moreover, outside assistance programs such as the Pan-Sahel Initiative provide Algerian forces and other countries support in combating the GSPC through additional training and equipment from the United States.  According to an Algerian newspaper article from December 2004, security service members claim that terrorism in Algeria is experiencing its “final moments”.  Indeed, the GIA has been reduced to only 30 members, according to one source, following a successful operation carried out by the National People’s Army and the security agencies starting in November 2004. 
Although it is difficult to determine the precise strength of the insurgents, security officials estimate anywhere from 500-800 Islamic militants are still active.  These smaller numbers are in part the result of a more effective counter-insurgency campaign inside Algeria, but also because an unknown number of GSPC members have left Algeria for Europe and Africa. According to some sources, at least 2,800 Algerians trained or fought in Afghanistan.
Hattab’s successor, Nabil Sahraoui, who assumed leadership of the group in mid-2003 after Hattab’s disappearance, was confirmed killed in June 2004. However, ambiguity has surrounded Hattab’s whereabouts since his departure from the group. Hattab has recently been reported in the hands of Algerian authorities as part of the reconciliation process and as a result, remaining GSPC members fear that he will betray information that would lead to their capture and the ultimate demise of the group.  In an attempt to solidify his role as the newly minted leader of the GSPC and to prevent future defections, Sahraoui’s successor, Abu Musab Abdelouadoud – who took over in mid-2004 – issued a communiqué earlier this month blacklisting Hattab for his cooperation with the authorities, saying “The GSPC dissociates itself from the actions of Hattab, who betrayed God and the Prophet, has strayed from the path of jihad, and sold the blood of the martyrs….”
Following Sahraoui’s death, Abdelouadoud officially took over the group’s leadership, but the GSPC now appears splintered between two factions. Abdelouadoud is nominally in charge of GSPC cells that are operating throughout northern Algeria and may or may not be coordinating their actions. Another group called the Free Salafist Group (GSL), established in February 2004 and currently run by former GSPC leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is operating separately from Abdelouadoud in the southern parts of Algeria. Belmokhtar – known as the “one-eyed” – is leading the charge in that region after Hattab’s deputy, Amari Saif, known as Abderrazak the Para, or “El Para”, was detained in March 2004 by the insurgent Chadian organization, Chadian Movement for Democracy and Justice (MDJT), while searching for arms along the Chadian border.  Amari Saif, a rival of former emir Sahraoui and called “the Para” because he was once a paratrooper in the Algerian army, was extradited by Libyan authorities to Algeria in October 2004 where he is currently being questioned about the group’s activities. 
Although GSPC cells in northern Algeria still constitute a threat, albeit a lesser one than in recent years, the GSL has emerged as the more serious security challenge to Algerian security. The group’s first high profile operation was the February 2003 kidnapping of 32 European tourists in southern Algeria. The hostages were eventually released (one German tourist died of heatstroke) after Germany agreed to pay the GSL $6 million. The GSL was formed in part because it wanted to separate itself from factions within the GSPC who wanted to turn themselves in as part of the national reconciliation and surrender others in the process.  The GSL appears, however, to look more like a criminal organization than a committed terrorist group. Belmokhtar and his followers apparently spend most of their time trafficking in drugs, arms and cigarettes.  Indeed, the head of the Algerian National Security Agency, Ali Tounsi, said in December 2004 that in a post-terrorism Algeria, the most serious security challenges will include organized crime, drugs, cybercrime, high financial crime, and money laundering.
Links with Al-Qaeda
The GSPC attracted al-Qaeda’s attention and some sources say its financial and material support, after it refused to support the GIA’s brutal tactics. In fact, Bin Laden had always taken a special interest in the Algerian Islamist struggle. The GSPC had a distinct advantage in that many of the combatants that defected to the group from GIA were Afghan war veterans who had ties to Bin Laden’s group through their combat experience fighting the Soviet Union. According to one source, Algerians made up one-third of all combatants during the Afghan war and had been among the first recruits in Bin Laden’s camps in Sudan in the early 1990s. Bin Laden also reportedly appointed Abu Qatada, an al-Qaeda theologian and propagandist, as the GIA’s spiritual advisor.
The GSPC is a well-established player in the broader North African network of Islamic extremists that operate in Europe and elsewhere. Some of the extremists that GSPC members are in contact with have established ties to al-Qaeda, and Algerian authorities claim to have killed a Yemeni al-Qaeda member in Algeria that met with the GSPC.
After 9/11, Hattab reportedly issued a public statement threatening that the GSPC would strike American and European interests if they attacked Muslim states, or disrupted their networks in the UK, France, Belgium, and the United States. Shortly thereafter, the GSPC was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the United States and its assets were blocked by Executive Order 13224. The GSPC has not conducted an anti-U.S. attack as a group, but individual GSPC members may have participated in al-Qaeda attacks against U.S. and Western targets. Other Algerian extremists, whose affiliations are not clear, such as Ahmad Ressam whose plot to bomb LAX airport was disrupted in late 1999, have also shown an inclination to attack the United States. 
In addition to helping the GSPC achieve its local goals in Algeria, al-Qaeda clearly also benefits from its relationship with the group by being able to take advantage of the numerous operatives that the GSPC has in the French speaking world and can call upon the support of those networks when needed. The relationship between al-Qaeda and the GSPC became clearer when several key al-Qaeda leaders – who were also GSPC members – were arrested. For example, Mohammad Bensakhria – believed to be a GSPC leader and al-Qaeda’s most senior representative in Europe – was arrested in Spain in 2001. Despite these ties, the degree of command and control that al-Qaeda has over GSPC networks remains unclear.
On September 11, 2003, the GSPC under Sahraoui’s leadership issued a public statement declaring its support for al-Qaeda. The statement said “We strongly and fully support Osama bin Laden’s jihad against the heretic America…” and claimed that the GSPC was now under the direction of al-Qaeda and Mullah Omar. Another communiqué from the group issued shortly thereafter claimed the GSPC was protecting al-Qaeda members in Algeria. This declaration could signal a confirmation that the GSPC is closely linked with al-Qaeda and plans to participate more fully in attacks against the United States and the West. However, it is unclear where the current leadership under Abdelouadoud stands on the GSPC’s relationship with al-Qaeda. As part of a recent communiqué, Abdelouadoud said that the national reconciliation program in Algeria is “…but another episode in the war against the jihad under the banner of the great American tyrant.”
If still relevant, the latest statement issued by the GSPC is significant in that the group intends to be a full partner in conducting attacks against the United States and the West. It will probably also open the door to whatever funding and resources al-Qaeda has to provide GSPC to aid in its local struggle. Sahraoui and now Abdelouadoud may choose to take the group in this direction because they truly believe in al-Qaeda’s ideology – like Ayman al-Zawahiri did with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) – or may just be seeking to breathe new life into the GSPC with additional resources. Al-Qaeda has made it clear through its propaganda that part of its broader strategy is to assist in the overthrow of “apostate” governments. Moreover formalizing the group’s relationship with al-Qaeda could elevate the GSPC to the same status enjoyed by the EIJ. Although joining al-Qaeda did not help the EIJ achieve its local goals in the end – in fact it undermined them by removing it from the Egyptian scene – a closer relationship with al-Qaeda will propel the GSPC into the forefront of international Islamic terrorism. This will likely accelerate the “de-nationalization” of the GSPC (in the same vein as the EIJ underwent a de-nationalization process) and thus push the Algerian state closer to winning its 13-year bloody struggle against Islamic militants.
Sara Daly is an international policy analyst at RAND. Her research focuses primarily on international terrorism, insurgency, emerging threats, nuclear terrorism, and intelligence issues.
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